`South Pacific' on opera stage. Durable musical performed with fidelity to original

Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II broke new ground in ``South Pacific'' by touching on interracial relationships at a time when the topic was largely ignored in the entertainment world. The New York City Opera's loving, literal revival of the nearly 38-year-old show, which runs through April 26, does not quite overcome the somewhat dated treatment of the subject. And yet one emerges from the evening struck by the melodic riches of Rodgers's score, and by Hammerstein's (and Joshua Logan's) unfussy, candid, communicative book. At a time when musicals were still emerging from the ``gosh, golly, gee'' school of dialogue, ``South Pacific'' had to have been quite an astringent. It was deemed good enough to win the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1950.

Today, when performers are required to dress up as felines (``Cats'') or don rollerskates to portray locomotives (``Starlight Express'') or must be a part of a huge stage concept that allows them little leeway for individual contributions, it is good to be reminded what the roots and true values of the American musical theater really were. And because the City Opera has cast this musical as a musical, rather than an opera, the dialogue has true theatrical impact.

The obvious disadvantage for any ``South Pacific'' cast is the inevitable comparison to the original Broadway stars, Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza. So let it be said at the outset that neither Susan Bigelow nor Justino Diaz erases memories of those legendary performers, nor of what apparently made them so remarkable in person. Nor does either principal erase memories of Florence Henderson and Giorgio Tozzi in the mid-'60s Music Theater of Lincoln Center revival on the same stage.

Nevertheless, Miss Bigelow is a charming performer, who simply and directly brings the ``corny as Kansas in August'' Nellie Forbush to life, and Mr. Diaz cuts an imposing figure as Emile de Becque. She has a slightly metallic singing voice that she tames commendably for her more intimate songs; he tends to oversing his music, which dulls the impact of his performance somewhat. Together they make a genuinely affecting moment out of the potentially saccharine finale.

Tony Roberts's Billis is something of a unifying element in an evening loaded with subplots, and he makes the most of his many opportunities. Muriel Costa-Greenspon is a bit too brassy as Bloody Mary, yet she tellingly manages to show a pathetic side to the character. Richard White's singing of Lieutenant Cable's music is not as polished as his acting of this potentially shallow role. The smaller parts are all strongly handled, and the chorus is particularly impressive throughout.

Gerald Freedman's staging is straightforward. Desmond Heeley has devised a very handsome series of sets, which Duane Schuler has lit with particular distinction. And in the pit, Paul Geminiani conducts the orchestra with fervor. At times the Robert Russell Bennett orchestrations sound a little thin when played by such a large ensemble.

Clearly, the City Opera is on to a good thing. Last year's ``Brigadoon'' was enlivened by the re-creation of the Agnes de Mille dances; this ``South Pacific'' shines because of its intrinsic ability to capture an audience by word and tune and keep it interested in all the various characters for nearly three hours. May the future of the spring musicals on this stage continue in the laudable tradition the company has now established.

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